Dante ‘resembles a Hebrew prophet’

Canto 26.04. Dante uses the metaphor of the prophet Elijah carried to Heaven in a firry chariot to characterize the sinners in Hell consumed by flames. [Second Kings, chapter 2, verse 11: “behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into Heaven.”] If Dante can play with the firry metaphor, then I can too—this is version # 1. And just as he who avenged himself with bears Beheld Elijah’s chariot departing With the rearing horses rising up to heaven, But never could have followed it with his eyes Except for the one flame that he kept watching Just like a little cloud sailing skyward: In this way each flame moved through the throat Of that deep ditch, none showing what it stole, Though every flame secreted its own sinner. [Canto 26, lines 34-42, translated by James Finn Cotter.]


 Damien F. Mackey


‘The immediate parallelism of Dante’s “old man” is to King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the second book of Daniel. Here, the man is similarly fashioned, with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, a waist of bronze, and legs of iron. However, both the feet in the Biblical passage are of iron mixed with clay, while in Dante one foot is iron and the other is of clay’.


Some Similarities


When reading through the life of Dante Alighieri (dated to C13th-14th’s AD) one may find some likenesses to the Jewish prophet, Daniel (c. 600 BC).

Using for Dante, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04628a.htm we find (emphasis in red):


Possibly of nobility, like Daniel (1:3).

[Dante] was the son of Alighiero di Bellincione Alighieri, a notary belonging to an ancient but decadent Guelph family, by his first wife, Bella, who was possibly a daughter of Durante di Scolaio Abati, a Ghibelline noble.


Kingdom [Italian empire] fell and was succeeded by foreign power (Daniel 1:1-2).

A few months after the poet’s birth, the victory of Charles of Anjou over King Manfred at Benevento (26 February, 1266) ended the power of the empire in Italy, placed a French dynasty upon the throne of Naples, and secured the predominance of the Guelphs in Tuscany.


Good Education (Daniel 1:4, 20).

To take any part in public life, it was necessary to be enrolled in one or other of the “Arts” (the guilds in which the burghers and artisans were banded together), and accordingly Dante matriculated in the guild of physicians and apothecaries.


Spoke out on justice matter and hence became famed (Daniel, “Susanna”).

On 6 July, 1295, he spoke in the General Council of the Commune in favour of some modification in the Ordinances of Justice after which his name is frequently found recorded as speaking or voting in the various councils of the republic.


Famous Woman (Susanna again, but also Wisdom).

Already Dante had written his first book, the “Vita Nuova”, or “New Life”, an exquisite medley of lyrical verse and poetic prose, telling the story of his love for Beatrice, whom he had first seen at the end of his ninth year. Beatrice, who was probably the daughter of Folco Portinari, and wife of Simone de’ Bardi, died in June, 1290, and the “Vita Nuova” was completed about the year 1294. Dante’s love for her was purely spiritual and mystical, the amor amicitiae defined by St. Thomas Aquinas: “That which is loved in love of friendship is loved simply and for its own sake”. Its resemblance to the chivalrous worship that the troubadours offered to married women is merely superficial.

The book is dedicated to the Florentine poet, Guido Cavalcanti, whom Dante calls “the first of my friends”, and ends with the promise of writing concerning Beatrice “what has never before been written of any woman“.


Ruling interdict (Daniel 6:9: Wherefore king Darius signed the writing and the interdict”.)

At the beginning of 1300 the papal jubilee was proclaimed by Boniface VIII. It is doubtful whether Dante was among the pilgrims who flocked to Rome. Florence was in a disastrous condition, the ruling Guelph party having split into two factions, known as Bianchi and Neri, “Whites” and “Blacks”, which were led by Vieri de’ Cerchi and Corso Donati, respectively. On 7 May Dante was sent on an unimportant embassy to San Gemignano. Shortly after his return he was elected one of the six priors who for two months, together with the gonfaloniere, formed the Signoria, the chief magistracy of the republic. His term of office was from 15 June to 15 August. Together with his colleagues. he confirmed the anti-Papal measures of his predecessors, banished the leaders of both factions, and offered such opposition to the papal legate, Cardinal Matteo d’Acquasparta, that the latter returned to Rome and laid Florence under an interdict.


To be burned at stake (Daniel 3: Blazing Furnace – Three Young Men).

On 1 November Charles of Valois entered Florence with his troops, and restored the Neri to power. Corso Donati and his friends returned in triumph, and were fully revenged on their opponents. Dante was one of the first victims. On a trumped-up charge of hostility to the Church and corrupt practices, he was sentenced (27 January, 1302), together with four others, to a heavy fine and perpetual exclusion from office. On 10 March, together with fifteen others, he was further condemned, as contumacious, to be burned to death, should he ever come into the power of the Commune.


Exile honour. Justice (Daniel was an exile).

A few years before his exile Dante had married Gemma di Manetto Donati, a distant kinswoman of Corso, by whom he had four children.

Dante now withdrew from all active participation in politics. In one of his odes written at this time, the “Canzone of the Three Ladies” (Canz. xx), he finds himself visited in his banishment by Justice and her spiritual children, outcasts even as he, and declares that, since such are his companions in misfortune, he counts his exile an honour.


Writer on Matters Divine (Daniel 5: ‘Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means’).  

His literary work at this epoch centres round his rime, or lyrical poems, more particularly round a series of fourteen canzoni or odes, amatory in form, but partly allegorical and didactic in meaning, a splendid group of poems which connect the “Vita Nuova” with the “Divina Commedia”.


Lover of philosophy (Daniel 1:20: “In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom”).

About this time (1306-08) he began the “Convivio”, or “Banquet” in Italian prose, a kind of popularization of Scholastic philosophy in the form of a commentary upon his fourteen odes already mentioned. Only four of the fifteen projected treatises were actually written, an introduction and three commentaries. In allegorical fashion they tell us how Dante became the lover of Philosophy, that mystical lady whose soul is love and whose body is wisdom, she “whose true abode is in the most secret place of the Divine Mind”.


Disappears from scene (Nothing hear of Daniel from early reign of Nebuchednezzar until reign of Belshazzar).

All certain traces of Dante are now lost for some years.


On Monarchy (Daniel 4:27: ‘Therefore, Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue’).

It was probably in 1309, in anticipation of the emperor’s coming to Italy, that Dante wrote his famous work on the monarchy, “De Monarchiâ”, in three books. Fearing lest he “should one day be convicted of the charge of the buried talent”, and desirous of “keeping vigil for the good of the world”, he proceeds successively to show that such a single supreme temporal monarchy as the empire is necessary for the well-being of the world, that the Roman people acquired universal sovereign sway by Divine right, and that the authority of the emperor is not dependent upon the pope, but descends upon him directly from the fountain of universal authority which is God.

It is therefore the special duty of the emperor to establish freedom and peace “on this threshing floor of mortality”. Mr. Wicksteed (whose translation is quoted) aptly notes that in the, “De Monarchiâ” “we first find in its full maturity the general conception of the nature of man, of government, and of human destiny, which was afterwards transfigured, without being transformed, into the framework of the Sacred Poem”.


Most wicked. (Daniel 4:17: ‘… the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men’.)

Thence, on 31 March, he wrote to the Florentine Government (Epist. vi), “the most wicked Florentines within”, denouncing them in unmeasured language for their opposition to the emperor, and, on 16 April, to Henry (Epist. vii), rebuking him for his delay, urging him to proceed at once against the rebellious city, “this dire plague which is named Florence”.


Bad Decree (Daniel 6:8: ‘Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered–in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians’).

By a decree of 2 September (the reform of Baldo d’Aguglione), Dante is included in the list of those who are permanently excepted from all amnesty and grace by the commune of Florence.


Joined emperor Pisa (Daniel 8:2: ‘In this vision I was at the fortress of Susa …’).

In the spring of 1312 he seems to have gone with the other exiles to join the emperor at Pisa, and it was there that Petrarch, then a child in his eighth year, saw his great predecessor for the only time.


And Jeremiah/Jeremias (Daniel 9:2: ‘I, Daniel, learned from reading the word of the LORD, as revealed to Jeremiah the prophet …’).

Reverence for his fatherland, Leonardo Bruni tells us, kept Dante from accompanying the imperial army that vainly besieged Florence in September and October; nor do we know what became of him in the disintegration of his party on the emperor’s death in the following August, 1313. A vague tradition makes him take refuge in the convent of Santa Croce di Fonte Avellana near Gubbio. It was possibly from thence that, after the death of Clement V, in 1314, he wrote his noble letter to the Italian cardinals (Epist. viii), crying aloud with the voice of Jeremias, urging them to restore the papacy to Rome.



Part Two: Some More Comparisons



We continue with the New Advent life of Dante http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04628a.htm (emphasis in red):



Condemned to death. Pardoned (Daniel 2:24, also Fiery Furnace incident).

A little later, Dante was at Lucca under the protection of Uguccione della Faggiuola, a Ghibelline soldier who had temporarily made himself lord of that city. Probably in consequence of his association with Uguccione the Florentines renewed the sentence of death against the poet (6 Nov. 1315), his two sons being included in the condemnation. In 1316 several decrees of amnesty were passed, and (although Dante was undoubtedly excluded under a provision of 2 June) some attempt was made to get it extended to him.


Ideal ruler (Daniel 2:36-38, “Head of Gold”)

The poet’s answer was his famous letter to an unnamed Florentine friend (Epist. ix), absolutely refusing to return to his country under shameful conditions. He now went again to Verona, where he found his ideal of knightly manhood realized in Can Grande della Scala, who was ruling a large portion of Eastern Lombardy as imperial vicar, and in whom he doubtless saw a possible future deliverer of Italy. It is a plausible theory, dating from the fifteenth century, that identifies Can Grande with the “Veltro”, or greyhound, the hero whose advent is prophesied at the beginning of the “Inferno”, who is to effectuate the imperial ideals of the “De Monarchiâ”, and succeed where Henry of Luxemburg had failed.


Paradiso and its Explanation (Daniel’s Heavenly Vision, 7:9-10, 13-14 and Interpretation, 15-28).

In 1317 (according to the more probable chronology) Dante settled at Ravenna, at the invitation of Guido Novello da Polenta. Here he completed the “Divina Commedia”. From Ravenna he wrote the striking letter to Can Grande (Epist. x), dedicating the “Paradiso” to him, commenting upon its first canto, and explaining the intention and allegorical meaning of the whole poem.


Laurel crown of Bologna turned down (Daniel 5:17 turns down King Belshazzar’s honours: “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else”).

A letter in verse (1319) from Giovanni del Virgilio, a lecturer in Latin at the University of Bologna, remonstrating with him for treating such lofty themes in the vernacular, inviting him to come and receive the laurel crown in that City, led Dante to compose his first “Eclogue” a delightful poem in pastoral Latin hexameters, full of human kindness and gentle humour. In it Dante expresses his unalterable resolution to receive the laurel from Florence alone, and proposes to win his correspondent to an appreciation of vernacular poetry by the gift of ten cantos of the “Paradiso”.


Divina Commedia relates a vision (Daniel is a man of dreams and visions).

The “Divina Commedia” is an allegory of human life, in the form of a vision of the world beyond the grave, written avowedly with the object of converting a corrupt society to righteousness: “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity“. It is composed of a hundred cantos, written in the measure known as terza rima, with its normally hendecasyllabic lines and closely linked rhymes, which Dante so modified from the popular poetry of his day that it may be regarded as his own invention. He is relating, nearly twenty years after the event, a vision which was granted to him (for his own salvation when leading a sinful life) during the year of jubilee, 1300, in which for seven days (beginning on the morning of Good Friday) he passed through hell, purgatory, and paradise, spoke with the souls in each realm, and heard what the Providence of God had in store for himself and to world. The framework of the poem presents the dual scheme of the “De Monarchiâ” transfigured.


Beasts, Mountain (Daniel 7, Dream of Four Beasts, and 2:34 Mountain).

Virgil, representing human philosophy acting in accordance with the moral and intellectual virtues, guides Dante by the light of natural reason from the dark wood of alienation from God (where the beasts of lust pride, and avarice drive man back from ascending the Mountain of the Lord), through hell and purgatory to the earthly paradise, the state of temporal felicity, when spiritual liberty has been regained by the purgatorial pains.


Sight of God (Daniel’s Heavenly Vision, 7:9-10, 13-14).

Beatrice, representing Divine philosophy illuminated by revelation, leads him thence, up through the nine moving heavens of intellectual preparation, into the true paradise, the spaceless and timeless empyrean, in which the blessedness of eternal life is found in the fruition of the sight of God.


Sun and stars (Daniel 12:3).

There her place is taken by St. Bernard, type of the loving contemplation in which the eternal life of the soul consists, who commends him to the Blessed Virgin, at whose intercession he obtains a foretaste of the Beatific Vision, the poem closing with all powers of knowing and loving fulfilled and consumed in the union of the understanding with the Divine Essence, the will made one with the Divine Will, “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”.


Victim persecution and injustice, burning with zeal (Daniel 6, Den of Lions).

Himself the victim of persecution and injustice, burning with zeal for the reformation and renovation of the world, Dante’s impartiality is, in the main, sublime. He is the man (to adopt his own phrase) to whom Truth appeals from her immutable throne ….


Lofty mountain (Daniel 2:34), rising out of ocean (Daniel 7:2).

The “Purgatorio”, perhaps the most artistically perfect of the three canticles, owes less to the beauty of the separate episodes. Dante’s conception of purgatory as a lofty mountain, rising out of the ocean in the southern hemisphere, and leading up to the Garden of Eden, the necessary preparation for winning back the earthly paradise, and with it all the prerogatives lost by man at the fall of Adam, seems peculiar to him; nor do we find elsewhere the purifying process carried on beneath the sun and stars, with the beauty of transfigured nature only eclipsed by the splendour of the angelic custodians of the seven terraces.


Beatrice on banks of Lethe (Daniel 8:16 Angel on banks of river Ulai).

The meeting with Beatrice on the banks of Lethe, with Dante’s personal confession of an unworthy past, completes the story of the “Vita Nuova” after the bitter experiences and disillusions of a lifetime.


Works of Dante considered spurious (Many sceptics of Book of Daniel).

The title of father of modern Dante scholarship unquestionably belongs to Karl Witte (1800-83), whose labours set students of the nineteenth century on the right path both in interpretation and in textual research. More recently, mainly through the influence of G.A. Scartazzini (d. 1901), a wave of excessive scepticism swept over the field, by which the traditional events of Dante’s life were regarded as little better than fables and the majority of his letters and even some of his minor works were declared to be spurious.


Hebrew prophet (Daniel was indeed that).

Never, perhaps, has Dante’s fame stood so high as at the present day, when he is universally recognized as ranking with Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare, among the few supreme poets of the world. It has been well observed that his inspiration resembles that of the Hebrew prophet more than that of the poet as ordinarily understood.



Part Three:

Dante ‘Becomes’ Nebuchednezzar



Dante’s “inspiration resembles that of the Hebrew prophet more than that of the poet as ordinarily understood”. So we read in Part Two. But it has also been said (see below): “Dante is to Nebuchadnezzar as Beatrice is to Daniel”.





“Why should Dante have cast himself as the tyrannical Babylonian ruler?”





For some incredible likenesses to the Book of Daniel in Dante’s writings it may suffice to quote from the following two intriguing articles:



Robert Hollander (Princeton University) 17 May 2005 Paradiso 4.14: Dante as Nebuchadnezzar?
The following passage, a simile, apparently establishes a four-way typological analogy, three terms of which are disclosed, and one of which is not expressed, but is understood easily and by all who have dealt with this text. At the same time, it has always caused displeasure or avoidance in its readers:


Fé sì Beatrice qual fé Danïello, Nabuccodonosor levando d’ira, che l’avea fatto ingiustamente fello; (Par. 4.13-15)


The cast of characters of this passage also (and obviously) includes the protagonist, even if he is not named in it. And indeed, all readily agree that, in this “equation,” Dante is to Nebuchadnezzar as Beatrice is to Daniel. The problem only begins once we have come that far.

Dante has accustomed his readers to understanding his typological analogies readily. One such that usefully comes to mind with reference to our passage is found farther along in Paradiso, the allusion to the figurally related pair Ananias/Beatrice and its unexpressed but pellucidly clear companion duo, in similar relation, Saul of Tarsus/Dante:


“perché la donna che per questa dia regïon ti conduce, ha ne lo sguardo la virtù ch’ebbe la man d’ Anania .” (Par. 26.10-12)


While not all aspects of this quadripartite relation have proven to be easily assimilated (for instance, what exactly Beatrice’s gaze represents), it is probably fair to say that its basic business has escaped no one: Dante, blinded by the presence of St. John, is assured by him that he will soon regain his sight by the ministrations of Beatrice, who will serve as the new Ananias to his Saul (Acts 9:8-18), blinded on the road to Damascus.

To return to our less well understood simile, we find that it puts into parallel Beatrice (placating Dante’s anxiety) and Daniel (stilling Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath). It thus also necessarily puts into parallel Dante and Nebuchadnezzar, a relation that at first makes no sense at all[1]. The poet has earlier in the Commedia visited this biblical text (found in the second book of the prophet Daniel), the account of the king’s dream and Daniel’s interpretation of it (see Inf. 14.94-111 for Dante’s version of that dream, embodied in the representation of the veglio di Creta ). Here he fastens on its perhaps strangest aspect: the new king’s desire to kill all the wise men in his kingdom of Babylon who could neither bring his forgotten dream back to mind nor then interpret it � about as untoward a royal prerogative as anyone has ever sought to enjoy. Thus it seems natural to wonder in what way Dante may possibly be conceived of as being similar to the wrathful king of Babylon . The entire commentary tradition observes only a single link: Nebuchadnezzar’s displeasure and Dante’s puzzlement are both finally relieved by (divinely inspired � see Trucchi on these verses [2]) external intervention on the part of Daniel, in the first case, and then of Beatrice. However, saying that is akin to associating Joseph Stalin and Mother Teresa on the nearly meaningless grounds that both were among the most famous people of their time. Why should Dante have cast himself as the tyrannical Babylonian ruler? That is a question that has only stirred the edges of the ponds in the commentaries and has never had a sufficient answer. If we turn to the work of my friend Lino Pertile, we find that he, after correctly noting the verbal playfulness of the tercet (“Fé… fé… l’avea fatto… fello” [we might want to compare Par. 7.10-12: “Io dubitava e dicea ‘Dille, dille! / fra me, ‘dille’ dicea, ‘a la mia donna / che mi diseta con le dolci stille’,” an even more notably–and playfully–overwrought tercet]), characterizes this simile as being “hyperbolic and distracting rather than illuminating.”[3] That is because Pertile, like almost everyone else (and perhaps understandably), believes that “Beatrice might reasonably be compared to Daniel, but the analogy between Dante’s tongue-tying intellectual anxiety and Nebuchadnezzar’s wrath is hardly fitting.”[4] That, this writer must confess, was until very recently his own view of the matter.[5] However, if one looks in the Epistle to Cangrande (77-82), one finds a gloss to Par. 1.4-9 that is entirely germane here. And apparently, in the centuries of discussion of this passage, only G.R. Sarolli, in his entry “Nabuccodonosor” in the Enciclopedia dantesca[6], has noted the striking similarity in the two texts, going on to argue that such similarity serves as a further proof of the authenticity of the epistle.[7] In that passage Dante explains that his forgetting of his experience of the Empyrean (because he was lifted beyond normal human experience and could not retain his vision) has some egregious precursors: St. Paul, three of Jesus’s disciples, Ezekiel (such visionary capacity certified by the testimony of Richard of St. Victor, St. Bernard, and St. Augustine); and then he turns to his own unworthiness to be included in such company (if not hesitating to insist on the fact that he had been the recipient of exactly the same sort of exalted vision): “Si vero in dispositionem elevationis tante propter peccatum loquentis oblatrarent, legant Danielem, ubi et Nabuchodonosor invenient contra peccatores aliqua vidisse divinitus, oblivionique mandasse” [But if on account of the sinfulness of the speaker (Dante himself, we want to remember) they should cry out against his claim to have reached such a height of exaltation, let them read Daniel, where they will find that even Nebuchadnezzar by divine permission beheld certain things as a warning to sinners, and straightway forgot them].[8] Dante, like the Babylonian king, has had a vision that was God-given, only to forget it. And now he is, Nebuchadnezzar-like, distraught; Beatrice, like the Hebrew prophet, restores his calm. It is worth observing that Dante’s way of stating what Daniel accomplished is set forth in negative terms: He helped the king put off the wrath that had made him unjustly cruel; the poet does not say Daniel restored the dream, the loss of which caused the king to become angry with his wise men in the first place. But that is precisely what we are meant to conclude, as the text of the epistle makes still clearer. Thus the typological equation here is not otiose; Dante is the new Nebuchadnezzar in that both of them, if far from being holy men (indeed both were sinners), were nonetheless permitted access to visionary experience of God, only to be unable to retain their visions in memory. The king enters this perhaps unusual history, that of those who, less than morally worthy, forgot the divine revelation charitably extended to them, as the first forgetter; Dante, as the second. This is exactly the sort of spirited, self-conscious playfulness that we expect from this greatest of poets, who doubled as his own commentator. And that commentator, in the Epistle to Cangrande, was not only the first to deal with this passage but the only one to have got it right.[9]

[1] If one also considers Dante’s other typological reference to the book of Daniel (6:22; see Mon. III.i.1), where Dante compares himself to the prophet in the lions’ den, one quickly understands the non-binding nature of any particular identity in his series of self-definitions. See note 5 for his drawing attention to himself as David or as Uzzah, depending on the context in which he is working.

[2] Ernesto Trucchi, comm. to Par. 4.13-15, DDP.

[3] Lino Pertile, “Paradiso IV,” in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Introductory Readings III: “Paradiso,” ed. Tibor Wlassics ( Lectura Dantis [virginiana], 16-17, supplement, 1995), p. 50.

[4] Ibid.

[5] But see an earlier study of another figural construction in which Dante is observed connecting himself as antitype to an entirely negative precursor in surprisingly positive terms: Robert Hollander, “Dante as Uzzah? (Purg. X.57 and Epistle XI.9-12),” in Sotto il segno di Dante: Scritti in onore di Francesco Mazzoni, ed. L. Coglievina & D. De Robertis (Florence: Le Lettere, 1999), pp. 143-51. In that instance also the meaning of a passage in the poem is deepened by one in an epistle, if in that case the Latin text may have preceded the vernacular one, as is almost certainly not true in this.

[6] ED IV, 1973, p. 1a.  For an independent and similar argument (without reference to Sarolli’s voce), see Albert Ascoli, “Dante after Dante,” in Dante for the New Millennium, ed. T. Barolini and H.W. Storey (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), pp. 358-59 & nn.

[7] Sarolli continues, brushing aside the traditional commentator’s explanation, which focuses on the Daniel/Beatrice typology by simply avoiding the Nebuchadnezzar/Dante one, to speculate that what is really at stake is the parallelism Babylonian wise men/Plato, a pairing that simply doesn’t compute. (The wise men are not wrong; Plato is–or at least his ideas, in their raw form, are deeply culpable.)

[8] Epistola XIII.81, ed. E. Pistelli (SDI, 1960); tr. P. Toynbee (both cited from the Princeton Dante Project).

[9] Whatever doubt remains concerning the authenticity of the epistle has been effectively and considerably challenged by a recent study: Luca Azzetta, “Le chiose alla Commedia di Andrea Lancia, l’Epistola a Cangrande e altre questioni dantesche,” L’Alighieri 21 (2003): 5-76.



And we read further at: http://members.tripod.com/Snyder_AMDG/ImageMan.html



An Image of Man

Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto XIV, Lines 103-116

What makes a man? According to nursery rhymes the ingredients include snips and snails and puppy dog tails; according to modern times the ingredients are dollars and bills, gold and silver. According to Dante, the image of every man is revealed in the fourteenth canto of the Inferno with the allegory of the “old man” beneath Mount Ida from whom the three mythological rivers spring, and who is made of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay. But is this a man, this concoction of various elements? And is this everyman? Dante’s answer would be ‘yes,’ followed by an injunction to ‘look deeper.’

Taking Dante’s command to heart, the immediate parallelism of this “old man” is to King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the second book of Daniel. Here, the man is similarly fashioned, with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, a waist of bronze, and legs of iron. However, both the feet in the Biblical passage are of iron mixed with clay, while in Dante one foot is iron and the other is of clay. Daniel explains the various metals as the succession of empires after the “golden age” of Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream, a stone “cut out by no human hand (Daniel 2:34)” smites the base, cracking every layer of the statue. The image crumbles, blown away by the wind, and the stone becomes a mountain. Dante’s man is likewise fissured, but no reason is given for the disfigurement. Here the golden head remains intact, and no mountain takes the place of the statue in the Inferno, but “from the splay/of that great rift run tears (Canto XIV, ln. 112-113)” which form three of the four mythological rivers: Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon.

The similarity between the two images is striking, and one must assume that Dante expected his Medieval audience to draw such an obvious connection. It remains to the reader to probe the deeper meanings. Biblical scholars have long held that Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was not merely a prophecy about the King’s own reign and the empires after him, but a foreshadowing of the Reign of God, as symbolized by the victorious mountain. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Christ has already come through Hell (Canto IV, ln. 52-63) and liberated the righteous – the stone has already cracked the statue and become a mountain. The Reign of God proclaimed by the Gospels and symbolized by the mountain has come to pass. In Dante’s geography, the “great old man stands under the mountain’s mass (Canto XIV, ln. 159).” This mountain may be either Calvary or Purgatory, both “ladders” to the Heavenly Kingdom.

Daniel explains that the feet of the King’s statue that are made of iron mixed with clay represents an ill-made empire that shall be a “divided kingdom” with “some of the firmness of iron…in it,” that is “partly strong and partly brittle,” “mix[ed] with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together (Daniel 2:41-43).” By separating the two substances so that one leg is iron and the other clay, Dante shows a more completely “divided kingdom.” Some scholars have argued that this may represent or prefigure our own modern separation of church and state. Secular critics have made the case that the “right foot…baked of the earthen clay,/…the foot upon which he chiefly stands (Canto XIV, ln. 110-111)” is the Church herself, “weakened and corrupted by temporal concerns and political power struggles (Musa, 77).” This may certainly have been one of Dante’s multilayered meanings, but is not necessarily the only allegory.

The old man is mentioned as Virgil and Dante enter the Burning Sands after the Wood of the Suicides in Hell. These two rings are reserved for those violent against the Self (suicides), God (blasphemers), Nature (Sodomites) and Art (usurers). The iron foot is described in Daniel as that metal that “breaks to pieces and shatters all things…it crushes (Daniel 2:40).” Iron is the element associated with weaponry and war – a violent element appropriate to the circle of the violent. Clay, often used as a symbol for man’s human frailty, may be one answer to the riddle of the right foot. The people in Hell fell because they relied on their own flawed humanity rather than the divine providence or intellect, which the unshattered golden head may symbolize.














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